The jingle of the bit and bridle; the sound of hooves drowned by marching booted feet and the voices of a multitude echoed in his ears. Colored kerchiefs were waved by men and women and children clapped and capered in the streets as the bright sunlight flashed off the mail shirts and blades of the soldiers who marched proudly down the streets. Flags and trumpets; drums and cymbals; cheers and waving… all of it a feast for the eyes and ears.
Dienekes Arkantos stood with a frown on his stern features watching the procession. His beard, flecked with gray from the troubles of his youth, twitched as he clenched his jaw in short spasms. His clothes were stained and rough, but well mended, and his eyes were cold as they took in his surroundings.
“By the gods Di, ye look like death himself with that scowl on yer face,” came a boisterous laugh from his elbow and Dienekes turned the full force of his frown on his younger brother, who clutched a pair of leathern mugs spilling with frosty cold ale, the foam spilling over the lips like clouds. “For Fharlanghn’s sake, smile! It’s a feast day by the gods, enjoy yerself.”
Thrusting the sloppy mug into his brothers chest, Dienekes grabbed it instinctively, merely shaking his head in disgust.
“Look at ye, brother, ye’re as pissdrunk as a goblin whore. Show some self-restraint by the gods,” he barked in disgust.
“Swearing improves ye, Di,” Orion threw back with a laugh, the smell of alcohol strong on his breath. “Come on then, little Derek, walk with yer old uncle and we’ll have a drink ourselves, daddy be damned o’er there.”
Derek continued to wave his red kerchief, his other hand holding a juicy leg of turkey which dripped grease and fat over his young fingers, his five year old eyes roaming between his uncle and his father.
“Here, drink some of this, lad, puts hairs on yer chest,” he said sloshing the mug to Derek’s hands before his father could push his iron hard finger into Orion’s chest.
“Have ye no respect for yerself, for gods’ sakes? Yer making an ass outta yerself,” he hissed as the mug fell to the ground, people cheering and dancing, Derek turning to crane his neck, watching the Sarturian noblemen ride on magnificent horses, their armor so bright, their spears so long and tall.
“That’s the whole godsdamned point, Di,” Orion said slapping the hand away, his tone still happy, though his movements were clumsy and becoming more aggressive. “It’s a godsblessed parade! The king hisself has given free drink to the townsfolk. I’ve met three doxies already who’d spread for me, if I wanted, free o’ charge, and ye’re lecturing on proper and decent?”
“City folk are different then us. They got no morals and no code; doxies are likely to roll ye, if they spread for ye. And this king be given drink, what about bread and meat for the folk? Drink and a few spotty flags and suddenly the town forgets all about their troubles? Throw the mob some scraps and they…”
“Blah, blah, bloody blah,” Orion threw back mockingly, as Derek watched between his family and the townsfolk. He had three copper pieces he had saved that he would be betting on the old brown bear when the dogs were loosed on him. The odds were two to one against the bear, but Derek had heard that the bear had been starved lately, and was likely to be eager to fight.
“All ye talk about is code and morals. But what about life and living? We’re no different then them what’s cheering, except you’re so bleeding angry at yer lot in life that ye want to hate anyone who reminds ye of yerself.”
The turkey leg tasted good now as he bit another piece off of it. He wanted a taste of the ale to wash out some of the grease, but he knew he’d have to pinch his own mug from someone else, as his father and uncle were too heated up to share any of theirs right now.
He sighed softly to himself. Always fighting, those two, always arguing.
“And what does that mean, ye sodding bitch?”
Maybe beer would be better then ale with turkey. His father and uncle both agreed on some things, and the taste of a good meal was one of them.
“It means that yer so pissed at yer lot in life that anything that reminds ye of it ye need to strike down. Ye hate the common folk cause ye hate being common, and ye hate the nobles because it reminds ye that ye don’t have any money. Ye hate the whole bleeding world because ye had to fight against it all yer life to survive, is what it means.”
Of course the fact that they argued all the time made sense. The gods themselves argued and fought, why not people?
“And as fer ye, all ye can think about is drink and whoring and coin,” Dienekes shot back. “And why? Because ye don’t want to think about reality, ye want to ignore it because it’s too hard for ye. Ye want to hide behind doxies and rum and ale so that ye don’t have to deal with life, only hide from it.”
Derek could barely hear the blow, only the cursing and turned away from his uncle and father, who were now throwing food down and heaving bloody punches. He knew that his father would win, his father was bigger and stronger and always won. He knew his father would beat his uncle into submission and his uncle would lie bloody and bruised and in his guilt his father would nurse him back to health, asking forgiveness in his own way; hating himself for what he did to his little brother, while Orion hated himself for goading the fight, for pushing the words into blows or throwing the first punch.
All of that flashed through the mind of Derek as he sat in the old nook of rocks that nestled above the southern gate of Ruddicks Pass. He could see far into the valley below, which should peaceful and open of plains; but now it was a swarm of tents and palisade walls and ditches with Ravanese flags waving over the barriers.
Derek thought of his youth and the time he would watch his father and uncle fight, trying to ignore or shut out the pain as a boy, but always remembering that his own insecurities were molded by these two men. That each of them spoke a measure truth, in their own way, and gifted him with the burden and the strength that they possessed in measure.
He, Derek, would mirror both father and uncle; shunning and distrusting that which he feared, that which would brand him as weak and therefore able to be hurt. He would ensconce himself in a contrary lifestyle, one in which he would joke or drink or laugh or jibe; always to hide the fear and distrust of his fellow man. And his fears were normally justified when he saw what awaited him.
On the path to this town, his surrogate home, he had witnessed the greed of a merchant pushing them forward through madness in the mountains, nearly to their death. He encountered death and bloodshed in the caves they had sheltered in, but rather then be joyful at the survival of his new companions and himself he was instead full of bluster and outrage. For how could he trust anyone, truly? If he did, he would put his life in their hands, he would put his survival in the talents of another, and that could not happen, that could not be borne. So he put on his grim and dour face and hemmed and hawed about the presence of travelers who might be friends, because friends and loved ones too often brought pain.
Even now it was clear, that this place was a living symbol of that ideal. The leadership of this town argued and debated politics that were no consequence, of no importance, when an entire army was camped literally at their doorstep. And if that was nothing of consequence the people in the town were dying from a sickness and disease in the lower mines, yet no leader was willing to assist in their needs for aid, content instead to jockey for political power.
The only companion in this little berg he truly trusted, the half-orc, was trusted only because the creature was incapable of guile or cunning. Straight and true, in his own way, the half-orc was filled with many failings, as all men were, yet they were failings Derek tolerated because they were honest. He could tolerate an honest mistake, but he could not tolerate a fool, or a coward, or a scoundrel, or a knave. And he saw them all in the form of the government here, and the army here, and even the men who were eager to travel with them; none of them cared for what was important, the life and safety of the townspeople would all be forgotten by their pettifogging.
And look at you, then? Sitting here, sulking like a child. Are you any better then they? Do you not lower yourself, sinking beneath your talent and potential? You are in the position that, if you should act, you may do real good. But instead you hide, and curse, and fume, and heap scorn on those would offer you help, because if you accepted the challenge and failed it would be your failure, and you are afraid of that.
“No, I’m not afraid,” Derek muttered to himself seeing the Ravanese banners waving in the chill south wind, the snow and ice sparkling in the morning sunlight.
Then take action. Step from these childish thoughts and lift up the mantle of manhood; take your uncles courage and your fathers caution; ignore their failings and emulate their strengths. Take the challenge the gods placed in front of you and act upon it, and when you do act, you must succeed.
“Where shall I start? What shall I do?” Derek asked his thoughts with a frown.
Start with that which is closest to your heart; the deed is best done that you may do quickly. Save the miners, who you may save with some ease. And then, with that task complete, take whatever challenge lays before you with courage.
“Aye,” Derek nodded, grimly but proudly. “It was well said; with courage I shall take the challenge and succeed or die in the attempt.”
With that he moved from the cliff to seek his friends, and find his fate.